Gaping holes in our genealogies beg for stories that might bring families closer together, and maybe heal rifts. This is one of my stories.
All I remember of the funeral is the small, doll-sized casket, with white lace or ribbons on it—something suitably frilly and dainty that signified that it contained a tiny girl’s dead body.
Small towns where I grew up had a custom where the family of the deceased is treated to a lunch right after the funeral. All the mourners attend. The church ladies look after everything. I have no recollection of attending anything like that. It is likely that there was a lunch but that my mother had decided that we would not attend.
I also remember going into the rectory next-door to the church where the priest, Father Desmond, lived. He was gentle and kind, but also quite cheerful. After he spent a few minutes with my parents, he said to me, “Your little sister is an angel now. You don’t need to feel sad. She is with God in Heaven!”
And, for a few minutes, I did feel lighter.
The Family That Was
Our family in May 1961 consisted of four children and two parents. My parents were about the same age— Dad was a week older—and had been married when they were 22; actually, my mother turned 22 the day after they married. I was born when they were 23, a year and a month after their wedding, a sure indicator that there had been no improper pre-marital goings on, the kind that resulted in “premature babies” back in those proper days of the early 1950s. Mom—called Cathy by everyone but her father, who always called her Catherine—was dramatic, made herself up to look like a movie star, and my Dad, Fraser, was smitten by her for all of his life, he told me once in his old age when she had been gone for a couple of years.
Dad was a very quiet man, but recognized as very smart from his infancy. My grandmother, his mom, told me once that before he started school he was able to add and subtract numbers and just loved a math game they played. She would give him a problem and he would laugh and run over to the couch where he buried his head for a couple of minutes between the cushions, and then popped up and yelled out the answer; always correct. In 1960 he was the General Manager of a local agricultural company that bought and sold crop seeds and farm chemicals. We never seemed to have more than enough money to get by, but by the time my father retired, he had been the President of the Canadian Seed Trade Association three times, had friends in high places all over the world, and had traveled to China about three times. He was not ambitious, but he did enjoy the farming business, and he was well respected, or as the farming joke goes, “out standing in his field.”
That Spring there was me and three other children: Rex, age 6, Amy, 2 1/2, and Jimmy, the baby, was about 17 months old. We lived on my mother’s father’s farm and my father commuted to work in the town of Nipawin, about 10 miles away. My mother was a stay-at-home mom, pretty common in that era. She loved her family, but she was not really interested in housework or parenting. She was a smart person, also, and had the “Secret” been available in book form forty years before it actually hit the New York Bestsellers’ List, I am quite sure she would have read it and perhaps would have ferried Dad and her into the realm of success they never quite achieved. In lieu of doing any consistent parenting, she preferred to read and to sometimes paint. Rex and I had the run of the farm. Years later she told me that she was always quite apprehensive when we ran off together at the start of a summer day, but we always returned home safely from our adventures by supper time, so everything worked out. The two small children played happily enough within her scope of supervision, so she was often able to read a self-help book or a slim novel in a day.
The Big Sister
Both of my parents had grown up in large sibling groups, as eldest children, and had been expected to help care for the younger kids and perform other responsible eldest-child functions. The same was expected of me.
One day in May 1961, a school day, they announced that I would stay home from school to look after the younger children while they went to town to buy groceries. It was a hot day. The great sheet of ice that covered the White Fox River over the winter had heaved, cracked and broken in slabs and shards just a few weeks before. The current was strong, the water swirled and pulsed its way to the bigger rivers, and eventually to the sea.
A Day That Changed Our Family Forever
I decided that it was a good day to go into the water. The little ones could wade in the warm shallow water. Rex and I each had bikes with baskets on the front, into which we put the babies. Rex was six. He was capable of ferrying a baby in a basket on his bike down a long hill onto the highway, and to the public beach on the other side of the river. The public beach was a modest cobble margin on the river. In the 1930s when my great-grandfather and his son, my Grandpa Bert Sanders, bought the farm, the beach we headed to was the preferred destination for socialization and recreation among regional farm families in the hot summers. By the 1950s, the beach was infrequently used as a swimming location by all but those who lived very close by. Staying at small cabins at nearby fishing lakes had become the leisure norm for many farm families.
So, on this very warm, blue-skied day in late May my three younger siblings and I were the only people on the beach. Within a few minutes, we were all sinking our feet into the soft muddy bottom of the river. In my memory, within that same few minutes my little sister, Amy, had moved slightly out of my range and when I asked her to come back closer to shore, she said “No!” in that firm way 2-year olds use, and was immediately swept up on to her back by a fast-moving current. I tried to reach her as she skimmed by. She said nothing else. I called and tried to get to her. Whatever the other details are, I only remember seeing her glide by far from my grasp, faster than I could move through the water.
Somehow I remember getting to a nearby farmer’s house and pounding on their door, calling out in the most polite, but urgent voice I could manage. No one came to the door. They were not home.
I remember being back in our farmhouse, reading to Rex and Jimmy from the book “Tom Sawyer,” in a desperately animated way, unable to grasp the reality of what had happened, crying, praying out loud that this was just a bad dream. I wanted my parents to come up the drive in the truck.
When some time had passed, I left Rex to look after Jimmy and rode my bike as fast as I could to the telephone office in White Fox. That was where we went to make our telephone calls. It was a small front room in a house with a phone that was operated by the woman at a cord board behind the wall when you paid your dime through a small window. Somehow I ended up at Ida Rusk’s home across the street. Perhaps she came to get me when the phone operator found out what was happening? In any case, Ida was like an auntie to me, and I must have told her my story because I remember driving up to our house with her and the neighbour that we went to who was not home. I recall her saying from the back seat of the car that they had been milking the cows, and why had I not checked the barn. I recall Ida shushing her.
My mother was on the lawn, hugging my baby brother to her. The farm neighbour in the car's back seat asked Ida, “Is that the baby that got swept away?” Ida shook her head with a look that I caught and was thankful for. She was kind.
Other memories: I overheard our neighbour telling my mother that her older sons, esteemed good swimmers, were in the river searching for Amy.
I met with an RCMP officer back at the beach, and gave him my statement of what had had happened.
I watched TV in my grandparents’ living room when the news announcer read out the report of the event. He said something about my little sister drowning. I sobbed for the first time and my young auntie—the one who was closest in age to me, more like a big sister—came over to my chair and embraced me in my sorrow.
The White Fox River
After the Funeral
I have a small recollection of returning to school to finish Grade 4, of being treated gently by my classmates and teacher, even the boys.
The priest had suggested to my parents that it would be better for me if I went to a nearby boarding school—a convent—for the next school year. Perhaps my mother blamed me for what had happened and the priest intuited that it would be safer and healthier for me to be where objective strangers could care for me? Maybe my mother and father felt that they were incapable of giving me the spiritual direction in my life after such a devastating event and had discussed alternatives with the priest?
In any case, for the next year I lived during the week in an old convent, slept in a dorm, and enjoyed a level of peacefulness that I had not known before. The village where the convent was located was French-speaking, and our day involved going to Latin mass in the early morning, walking over to the village school for the day, and to chapel for the evening office every night before bed. My father, or one of the parents of the other four or five girls who also attended from my area, drove us to the school and picked us up, each weekend.
And So The Years Rolled Out
My younger brothers and I dealt with the grief as many children did in those days-- still do. I had dreams where my little sister appeared alive and happy enough. I also experienced paralyzing flashbacks to the day, which I was not able-- nor invited-- to share with anyone who might have helped ease the pain, guilt, regret, and loneliness for that little girl who sailed away from our life that day. I had no idea that there actually were people who could guide you through the pain of loss, and maybe there weren't in those days in Northeastern Saskatchewan, a hinterland in many ways.
My parents had a troubled life together, complicated by alcohol abuse and mental health issues. Certainly my younger brothers will also have had life experiences connected with the trauma of our little Amy's drowning. Until this time, our family--stoic, introverted, and disengaged emotionally and by geography--have not come together to discuss the impact of this tragedy on us as individuals or as a family.
Help For Children Who Have Lost A Sibling
Loss is a fact of life. While we live in a world that can be brutal for all of us, the impact of trauma and loss for children is always a magnification of what it is for adults. Fortunately there are many helpful resources to be found in your community and/or on the Internet. I became a social worker-counselor, likely as an unconscious desire to deal with my losses. One of the best and most inclusive services that I found through testimonials from bereaved families is the Compassionate Friends organization. Here you will find information about caring for your child(ren) when they have experienced sibling death. There is also a Facebook support group for people who have lost siblings. Compassionate Friends is a non-profit agency with local chapters meeting in communities in Canada and the United States.
© 2018 Cynthia Zirkwitz
Cynthia Zirkwitz (author) from Vancouver Island, Canada on October 02, 2020:
Thank you for your empathetic comments Caitlin.
Caitlin Goodwin from Walt Disney World, FL on September 07, 2020:
Such a heartbreaking story. Very well written. I can’t imagine how stressful it must have been to be in charge of three little siblings at such a young age!
Cynthia Zirkwitz (author) from Vancouver Island, Canada on December 04, 2019:
Thank you Umesh, for reading and your kind comments.
Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on December 02, 2019:
A touching personal story well narrated by the author.
Cynthia Zirkwitz (author) from Vancouver Island, Canada on July 22, 2018:
Peggy, I am quite overwhelmed by the outpouring of compassion and kindness that you and others in this HP community have shared with me. I thank you for the examples you provide of the randomness of tragic accidents-- I can imagine what these other accidental deaths meant to the lives of the women you describe, that helps me to feel less guilty; even after all these years I seem still to need that assurance. And yes, I'm sure this little one was heaven-bound.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on July 22, 2018:
This was heartbreaking to read. Even if you had been older and stronger with adults present that accident might still have taken place. My mother-in-law was at a school outing with teachers present when one of her classmates drowned in an Iowa river. That memory never left her.
A little girl in our Wisconsin countryside neighborhood accidentally got hung on a swing set with something that got caught around her neck. Her mother had gone inside the house for just a moment of time to do something. That girl's younger siblings were outside with her. I still remember her small white casket.
Accidents do happen. That priest you had sounded like a very smart and compassionate person. The direction you took with your life has obviously helped others deal with difficult circumstances. So very sorry you and your family had that happen to your little sister. She is surely in heaven.
Cynthia Zirkwitz (author) from Vancouver Island, Canada on July 21, 2018:
Ms. Dora, Thank you for your kind, hopeful words. The heaviness has indeed lightened over the years, but the sadness of the loss strangely remains, and can surface pretty strongly even after 57 years. I think seeing and hearing about the traumatized children involved in all the family separations at the Border has been a trigger. I am happy to hear of resolutions taking place.
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on July 21, 2018:
It's great that you shared this story. The pain becomes a little less heavy each time. Please remember also the few happy moments that you shared with your sister. Best to you and all the family going forward!
Cynthia Zirkwitz (author) from Vancouver Island, Canada on July 20, 2018:
Thank you LInda for your very compassionate comments. I appreciate your kind support.
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on July 20, 2018:
I am so sorry for what you and your family experienced, Cynthia. Writing this article must have been difficult, but I think reading it may be valuable for others who have experienced a loss and perhaps for your family, too. I hope this is the case. My thoughts are with you.
Cynthia Zirkwitz (author) from Vancouver Island, Canada on July 20, 2018:
Thank you for your kindness and insights. Yes, the stoicism of the farm families in the rugged land I grew up in covered a lot of grief. I appreciate your dropping by to comment.
John Hansen from Queensland Australia on July 19, 2018:
This is so sad and would be a traumatic experience that would live with you forever. Thank you for sharing this, Cynthia. Often, these heartbreaking events are closeted away as family members try to move on with their lives by not speaking about what occurred. However, it can never be forgotten and will inevitably have to be dealt with at some stage. Glad you reached that point where you could reveal it to us here at HubPages.
Cynthia Zirkwitz (author) from Vancouver Island, Canada on July 19, 2018:
Paula, thank you for your compassionate comments. Because of the love and kindness of other HP writers, like you, I felt (somewhat) ready to commit to page what has been on my mind/heart for 57 years. You are right that the positive outcome of having lived through this is being able to empathize with others with gaping wounds. I appreciate your insights.
Cynthia Zirkwitz (author) from Vancouver Island, Canada on July 19, 2018:
Thank you FlourishAway. This was difficult to write on so many levels, too:
*I want my children and grandchildren to have the story to refer to because I believe that these narratives are often missing from our family, and from us, of course.
*I didn't want it to be too maudlin, but I did want to have some emotional connection to others who are going through this, or have children going through this.
*I went way over the 1250 word optimum for the article, so necessarily abbreviated a lot that could have been more usefully expanded for explanation. I feel like I gave my brothers short-shrift and I am pretty ashamed that we haven't talked about this... yet.
*But I definitely stepped out of my usual comfort zone, and feel like there are some other topics that I can now write about.
So, that is good. Thank you for your usual sweet supportive comments.
Suzie from Carson City on July 19, 2018:
I am overwhelmed with the deep kind of sadness that leaves one paralyzed. I am so very close to this tragedy of loss that DOES change an entire family forever, never to be forgotten. You have my sincere sympathies, thoughts and prayers. Keep your powerful love alive and healing the gaping wounds. Peace, Paula
FlourishAnyway from USA on July 19, 2018:
This is heartbreaking on so many levels and I feel for you — what this tragedy did to your growth, support, and development as you struggled to make sense of it. I’m happy you found some semblance of peace now.